The Cream sat down with Yonder Mountain String Band's Ben Kaufmann, Adam Aijala and Dave Johnston at Bonnaroo, where we talked about the band's experience playing the festival and sorting out their band identity. See our interview after the jump.
As a spectator at Bonnaroo, you notice a huge difference between how bands that are up-and-coming present themselves versus how bands that are well-established approach their set. The name Yonder Mountain String Band obviously is very established, but you’ve said recently in some interviews that 2014 is almost a back-to-the-drawing-board year for the band. How do you feel coming to Bonnaroo being simultaneously veterans and beginners?
Ben Kaufmann: Yeah, so on the one hand Yonder Mountain is an established name, it’s an established thing, but on the other hand we’re in this new place of performing music. So it’s kind of a new thing too. So what’s the difference between how established bands come out and do their set — I’m thinking, like, Elton John. You’re gonna get "Rocket Man." But for younger bands, like — what was that one that guy was talking about? Diarrhea Planet? People are talking about them. They went for it and laid it all on the line. So what’s our approach? It’s gotta be a little bit of both. We’re certainly going to be playing what are considered some of our classic tunes, but we’ve got two musicians with us for the Bonnaroo stage that we haven’t played a lot of shows with. Maybe it comes down to how you listen to each other. If you’re established, if you’ve been playing together with the same people for so long, you kind of know how it’s going to go. Maybe even get stuck in a rut. But when you add new people in the mix, especially with improvisational music like we play, there’s a different kind of listening that takes place. So I think it probably might end up being a little bit more connected onstage, and with something like this where it’s so big and you’ve got 50,000 people out in front of you, there are certain things that we know we have to do. A lot of it is tempo, making sure we’re keeping up the tempos, we’re not playing any ballads. We’re going to keep that beat going as fast as we can. That covers a lot of ground at a thing like this.
Adam Aijala: Ben said in another interview that with festival sets in general, we do two sets when we play a show usually, so a festival set is a compact version, and we feel like we have to over-deliver. If a full show is like sex as a 40-year-old, then this is like high-school sex: You gotta go out and blow your load. You got 75 minutes, go! But we still try to keep an ebb and flow in the show, but like Ben said, we won’t do two slow songs. We don’t ever do two slow songs in a row, but we probably have about 20-30 songs that we’ll probably never play in a festival set. You wanna keep it funky, you wanna keep the tempos high, you wanna keep the people going, not have them get bored. But I looked at the set list we made, and we could insert that into another festival and it would work fine. It’s not made specifically for Bonnaroo, I don’t think.
Dave Johnston: One of the cool things about your question is the idea of being simultaneously old and new. One of the interesting things about Yonder Mountain either in the new configuration or the old configuration is that we’ve never fell into the trappings of old established bands because we don’t do the same thing every night. So we’ve always been simultaneously old and new, if that doesn’t sound pretentious enough.
What’s it like to play with Sam Bush?
BK: Sam is the king in every respect. If he wants to tell me a story, I’m listening, until he’s done. If he wants to play, if he’s taking a solo, I’m supporting him until he’s done. He revolutionized an instrument. He’s the guy who played mandolin like a rock 'n' roll instrument. For me, that was the thing I noticed. I went, “This guy is not just rural; he’s not just a clone of Monroe.” He did something different. The energy that he brought to the music was one of the things that drew me to it. I was at New Grass Revival, or I saw Sam Bush Band, and I thought, "Yeah, something like that. More like this than the traditional stuff was what was calling me.” And then wouldn’t you know it, after we were together as a band for a couple of years, we got to hang out with him and meet him. Turns out he likes us.
AA: We opened for him right? And he asked us to sit in and was so cool. He’s a hilarious guy too. A lot of those ol' bluegrassers have really good senses of humor, not PG at all — very funny guy. He’s always been very cool to us, very nice and very supportive.
DJ: Yeah, I’d like to echo Ben’s sentiment. Everybody chops like Sam chops because he came up with that. Hanging with him is totally overboard in fun.
You’re playing the Ryman in July. Despite the fact that both Bonnaroo and the Ryman are in Tennessee, it seem like you couldn’t find two places on more opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the way they want you to treat bluegrass traditions. Will that make a difference in the way you approach those two shows?
AA: No. I think because we’ve been around long enough everybody will know what they’re going to get. No one’s thinking, “Oh Yonder Mountain String Band, the trad bluegrass band coming to the Ryman with our suits!” We do pretty well in Nashville. We haven’t played the Ryman in years. We get, for lack of a better word, a good hippie crowd — it’s not your traditional bluegrass listeners. Unless there’s people that run the gamut, I like trad bluegrass too, so I’d go to a trad show. But I don’t think it will affect it at all, personally.
BK: I think too, at least I hope. When Yonder plays a show, we’re going to invest all of our energy. I like to say we play from our heads, our hands, our hearts and our balls. But the last thing that we are going to do is be disrespectful in any way to anything that a traditionalist might be looking for. If we’ve offended somebody, we’ve done something wrong. But at the same time, we’re going to play our asses off. We’re going to play the way we play, but there’s zero interest in going out and doing something that is offensive or belittles a tradition that we all care about so much. We’re going to do it our way. I think I said this a couple minutes ago too, but I’ve always identified Yonder as the bastard children of bluegrass, but we’re still children of bluegrass. We got a seat at the table. That’s how I identify this band within the greater canopy of bluegrass. I don’t think we’re going to change our approach at all — maybe we’ll try to come up with a cool old-time cover, but we’re going to do our show.
DJ: Those guys both covered it really well. You come to a place like Bonnaroo, you’re expected to rage and throw down, and your intention is to rage and throw down. Whereas I think if you went to the Ryman with the idea, “We’re going to scream the doors off this place, you guys can take it or leave it," I don’t know if we’ll be quite there. We’ll be in between.
What’s it like playing when you’re that far off from your last full album?
AA: A lot of bands tour in support of an album, but we just always tour. It really hasn’t been that bad, because we have a backlog of material. It’s not like we’re playing the same songs. Some songs are almost 15 years old, and then you get everything in between down to songs that aren’t even a year old or on any records. We have songs that just aren’t on records and probably never will be. There’s a couple that we just started playing in July that we went in the studio with about three weeks ago and laid down five tracks, and two of them are some of the new ones. We have some brand-new stuff too that we’re not playing live yet. But I don’t think it affects what we’re able to put on. The only way it really affects us is how our — you know, if a publicist has a lot more fodder, if you have something to promote, you have a lot more chances of having a lot more opportunities. But that’d be the only way I’d say it really affects us, because like I said, we’re always writing new stuff.